LIVING IN THE RELATIONAL CHURCH
BY: WAYNE JACOBSEN
LIVING IN A RELATIONAL CHURCH
What God Calls Church
Lone Rangers Need Not Apply
Finding Body Life
LIVING IN A RELATIONAL CHURCH
Encourage One Another
Two Or Three Together
Finding the Family
THE SPIRIT OF FAMILY
The Longing for Family
Forgetting What’s Behind
Freely Receive, Freely Give
Friends on the Adventure
GIVING AND GENEROUSLY
Jesus and Money
A Different Way of Giving
How Does It Work?
A Living of Giving
REASONS TO LIVE
Not an Easy Out
Having Nothing to Do With
Step Away Quietly
WHY HOUSE CHURCH ISN’T THE ANSWER
It’s Not in Form
Mutual Accommodation of Self-Need
Everywhere a Movement
Accept No Substitutes
WE ALREADY HAVE A SHEPHERD
Leadership in the Relational Church
Not So With You
Transformed Lives Not Credentials
Supplements Not Substitutes
To Serve Not To Manage
Function Not Identity
One Flock with One Shepherd
Do We Need Fellowship?
It’s Him We Need
Take No Substitute
Overestimating Our Abilities
Not Even a Little Bit
Sharing Dependence on Him
LIVING IN THE RELATIONAL CHURCH
“So, after 2,000 years, how do you think he’s doing?”
I can’t resist asking that question whenever I’m studying Matthew 16 with a group of believers. There we find the only recorded instructions Jesus gave to his disciples about the church. “I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” He didn’t ask them to do it. He didn’t give them a blueprint of an organization. He simply said he would build his church and it would be strong enough to withstand any assault by darkness.
So it only seems natural to assess how he’s doing. If he’s been at it for almost 2,000 years, what do we have to show for it? I’ve asked that of all kinds of people, even at pastoral conventions. When I do, you can feel the tension in the room. People shift awkwardly, a few chuckle nervously. They know better than to say he hasn’t done well, but they also know the church is fragmented by division, scandalized by immorality, vilified for its arrogance, exposed by its misplaced priorities and far from replicating the ministry Jesus modeled for us in the Gospels.
We either have to conclude that Jesus hasn’t done an exceptional job, or consider that there is a vast difference between what he calls church and what we do.
I used to be disillusioned by what I thought was God’s church. Seeing his people lost in priorities that were far from his own and doing things in ways that seemed to benefit the institution more than extend God’s kingdom in our lives or the world. I lamented the sorry state of the church.
Not anymore! In recent years I’ve come to realize that our religious institutions are not the church God sees. What God calls ‘church’ are all the people who know his Son as their Lord and leader. They are scattered over the whole world, growing to know him better and to demonstrate his character in the world. This is the bride God is preparing for his own Son. I’ve seen parts of her all over the world. Far from being weak, divided and corrupted, the church of Jesus Christ is growing in beauty, strength and power everyday. How is Jesus doing at building his church? Incredible! His people exist in every knook and cranny of the world, and they are finding ways to relate to each other that glorify his name, not cause people to disparage it.
WHAT GOD CALLS CHURCH
To see it, however, you have to look past the institutions and buildings we call church and find those people who are living in him. Please don’t misunderstand that statement. I am not speaking against those institutions as evil, only encouraging you not to confuse them with church. Yes, many people frequent them who are part of God’s church and are growing to know him better. That’s not at question, but to see God’s work in the world, you have to look beyond the groups that call themselves church and see the bigger picture – all those God is calling to himself throughout your city and the world.
If not, we’ll confuse our religious systems with the church and miss the great thing God is doing in preparing himself a bride. We must be careful to call church what God calls church, or we’ll end up saying things that don’t make any sense.
For instance, I was with a young couple recently. A few months before, they had simply had enough. Tired of the backbiting, bored by being a spectator on Sunday mornings, wearied of being manipulated to do more for God, and burned-out on too many responsibilities, already they told me they had left the church.
“How could you do that” I asked. “The church is not something you can leave, unless you’ve left Jesus.”
Of course they hadn’t and they only meant that they had left organized religion in hopes of finding a more authentic expression of his life than the group they were in. But that is a very different thing than leaving the church. Let us be careful with our terms. When religious organizations co-opt the term, ‘church,‘ it is easy for us to get confused, thinking that’s what they really are. But they are not. They might be gatherings of people who are part of the church, but in and of themselves they are not the church.
The church of Jesus Christ could never be contained in any organization, and in fact, the way he works makes it impossible to fit in the most skillfully constructed structures.
LONE RANGERS NEED NOT APPLY
I know you’ve probably heard people say such things proved to be lone-rangers, never seeming to thrive in the life of Jesus. But that is a long ways from who God’s people really are. Just as institutions can’t be the church by declaring it so, neither can individuals.
Who is the church in the world? Is it not those who live the same confession Peter offered? “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” You are part of the church as you live under the Head, following him as your Lord and leader. You can’t be the church by following someone else who is doing that; you have to do it yourself.
And following him will not lead you to independence. How can it? God is a community and wherever he is known, real community will emerge among his people. Father, Son and Spirit have dwelt in true community for all eternity, knowing the sheer joy and wonder of sharing life, love and glory with themselves. You can’t touch his love and not find it drawing you toward others God puts in your path.
As brothers and sisters begin to connect with each other in real fellowship, they will soon discover that what they know about God is always in part, as if through a darkened window. But in fellowship among believers who are growing to know him better, there is a fullness of wisdom and revelation. That’s why Paul said in Ephesians 1 that the church is “the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.”
Imagine any singular group of people fulfilling that incredible promise! The reason why our view of God is often limited, is because institutions are only able to pull people together… who see the same thing in the same way. Their view through the darkened glass never gets any clearer; they only grow more convinced that what they see is more accurate than what anyone else sees.
God’s kind of community, however, springs up among people who are pursuing a vibrant friendship with the Living God. For I’ve thought the life of God flows to people through our so-called church structures. But it isn’t so. Life does not exist in the church, it is only in Jesus.
Those who gather then to get fed or pumped up to get through another week miss what relational church is all about. We can only find life in Him, and once we find it there; our connection with other believers allows us to share that life together. ‘Church’ cannot ever be a substitute for knowing Him. We can’t follow Him by conforming to the religious system in which we find ourselves; and why would we want to? He’s offered each of us the joy of knowing Him every day.
That’s why a growing personal relationship is critical to relational Christianity. It can only begin, as people are equipped to know the living God and follow Him. Having a growing relationship with Him – will teach you how to relate to other believers. It doesn’t flow the other way around, and years of trying to make it do so, have only disillusioned those who really want to know God better every day.
Gene Edwards was right when he says the model for church life is found in Jesus’ relationship with his disciples. He never taught them how to have a ‘service’ or how to construct an organizational flow chart. He didn’t tell them that church life was about attending a meeting, conforming to a group ethic, or regimenting people’s lives by the most well-intentioned program.
Instead, he taught them how to relate to God as Father, and each other as brothers and sisters. The language he used with them (and indeed the language Paul uses in his letters) was not the language of institutions, but the language of family.
Because most of what we call ‘church’ today operates on institutional dynamics, many believers today have no idea what God has designed church life to be. Institutions must focus on creeds, programs and procedures that attempt to get people to conform to the ‘way we do things here.’ Usually a group of top-heavy leadership draw the most attention and people are encouraged to submit, unquestioningly, to their insights and counsel.
Institutional dynamics encourage people to promote an image – and does not free them to be real. Gossip and one-up–man–ship games abound, as people try to find their place – often at another’s expense. The same things you see in the corporate world are the basis of life as an institution. And if you ever leave an institution, you will often be ignored. Many people who have left religious institutions have commented that they felt like they ceased to exist even for people whom they had considered close friends.
Life, as a family, however, is built on an entirely different set of methods and goals. In a healthy family people are not cooperating to achieve an end, they are simply learning to relate to each other in love. In a healthy family diversity is not only allowed, it’s cherished. People don’t relate to each other through lines of authority, but by functional gifting. If someone’s car started to make strange noises on the way over, they feel no compulsion to ask the older brother to attend to it. They will already know who in the family has the most ‘car-sense’ and seek their help.
Healthy families don’t press people to conform, but let people grow together at their own pace. They have the freedom to disagree without separating into multiple families. They share together in each other’s journey, serving with their gifts, offering insights and abilities where they are helpful, and supporting each other no matter what they go through.
Many believers today are finding fresh encouragement in the ‘one anothering’ Scriptures that the New Testament encourages believers to do for each other. They are discovering that teaching, counseling, serving, offering hospitality, sharing confessions, praying for needs, admonishing the selfish, and all the rest are not things we hire a staff to provide for us, but what the body was meant to do for each other. As we live in Jesus together he passes out gifts among the entire body, that each can give and each receive from God through others. That’s why some have said that there is more ‘church’ going on in the parking lots on Sunday morning than is allowed to happen in the morning service.
If you’ve ever experienced real spontaneous, fellowship among a group of believers, you don’t need me to tell you how rich it is. The joy of journeying together, of not having to pretend, of having people support you in your weakness and affirm you in your gifts are reward enough. And yes, a lot of that can go on among believers who gather in institutional environments, but it isn’t always there.
The important thing is that you recognize family dynamics when you see them and embrace them wholeheartedly. Conversely recognize hurtful, institutional dynamics which have nothing to do with God’s kingdom and take your distance from them guiltlessly.
As much as Paul encouraged believers to get together in ways that encourage your life in God, he also told them to be free to walk away from environments that become destructive to that life. If you sense him leading you away from such a group, don’t be condemned either by them or yourself. You will not be leaving the church at all. He may only be preparing you to find it in a more authentic way than you ever dreamed.
FINDING BODY LIFE
So where do you go to find relational church life? Why to Jesus, of course! That may sound simplistic, but where else can you go? Trust Jesus to provide the fellowship he wants you to have. Remember, his church is built on those who are learning to trust him.
You might discover the freedom to live relational church right where you are. Don’t worry about whether or not everyone else shares your same perspective; simply look for opportunities to share life with people hungering to know him more fully.
You may find, however, that some institutional structures actually devour those who hunger to follow God freely and he might call you out. Many people leave one broken institution, only to dive into another or start a new one on their own. Let me encourage you to slow down and don’t do anything until he clearly speaks to you.
Watch for the people he begins to connect your life with, some may be lifetime friends, others new acquaintances. Don’t hurry to start anything, learn to recognize what he is doing in your area to provide meaningful connections between believers that are hungry to know him – his honesty, his grace and his life! He has people who will share the journey with you and encourage your growth without manipulating you to conform to their expectations.
Where you find that in your own locality may differ greatly from how someone else finds it in theirs. It might be in a Sunday morning gathering, with a neighbor up the street, in home groups or with people God spontaneously brings across your path. However it comes, you’ll find that church life could never be a once-or twice-a-week event. It happens every day – as we live our lives in Him and share that with others.
As you’ve read in these pages before, there are lots of ways Jesus calls his believers to share his life together. In our next issue we’ll look at what it means not “to forsake the assembling of yourselves together” and detail some of the ways God invites people to share His life together.
I know it can be discouraging, looking for a depth of body life that it seems too few hunger for today. But Jesus would not have stirred your passion for it, if He didn’t have a way to meet it. It just may not come in the way you’re expecting it. So don’t focus so hard on any one thing – that you miss the other doors He opens for you. Tell Him how much you hunger to know an authentic body life that matches what He shared with His disciples. Ask Him to connect you with people who share a passion to live in the dynamics of family.
Then enjoy whatever connections He begins to make. Don’t force it into your mold, or feel the need to make a group out of it. Just learn what it is to relate to brothers and sisters, even in groups of twos and threes, that lets Jesus be at the center.
Love others in the same way God loves you and you’ll see the church Jesus is building all around you and all over the world.
It will astound you!
After all, he’s been doing that for 2,000 years. He’s actually amazingly good at it! Copyright 1999
LIVING IN THE RELATIONAL CHURCH
“Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” (Heb. 10:24-25)
I don’t know of another Scripture that has suffered more abuse than this one. It is often quoted as the reason people must file into a religious institution on Sunday morning, sit in rows and submit to a music performance and a lecture that others have put together for their benefit.
For many, that is the only standard that determines whether someone belongs to God’s church or whether they are regarded as independent and rebellious. It has become so enshrined in our religious psyche that nothing else matters.
If you frequent one of these religious establishments with some regularity (every few weeks will do) others consider you to be a healthy believer. If not, however, they raise an eyebrow of caution. Just going validates someone’s faith even when nothing else about their lives would indicate that they know who he is. Some of the most arrogant and independent people I know sit through a weekly religious event and still go out and live life on their own terms.
Pressed on the point, many will admit that Sunday morning attendance isn’t going to earn their way into heaven or secure a life-transforming relationship with the Living God. But while they concede it may not work for everyone, they consider those who do not attend to be in grave danger.
How tragic! When we fail to view the church as God does, and unthinkingly embrace what 2,000 years of religious tradition says it is, we miss out on some of the simplest and best truths of God’s Word. For the writer of Hebrews is talking about something far more vital than where someone sits on a weekend morning.
ENCOURAGE ONE ANOTHER
The above passage from Hebrews was never intended to be a proof-text to demand people sit through a programmed ‘service’ every week. But please don’t misunderstand me here. If your relationships with other believers revolve around such a meeting and you are growing to experience all that God has for you in the midst of it, stay with it!
But I think we make a critical error if we assume that’s all the writer had in mind. I see five reasons why he must have been talking about something more:
First, the early church did not have anything like what we call ‘church services’ today. Yes, they got together -mostly in homes, and only occasionally in larger settings to hear one of the apostles or a distant teacher help them discover who God is and how to walk with him. These gatherings, however, didn’t look at all like most programmed gatherings today which are often designed more to entertain than to equip.
Second, the writer specifically focuses on an environment where each believer is actively involved in encouraging the others – stimulating them to love and good deeds. Where does that happen in most Sunday morning events today? People only look at the back of other people’s heads while all the ‘ministry’ flows from talented musicians and orators up front. This Scripture paints a far different picture of face-to-face dialogue and personal engagement.
Third, he tells them to do it daily. How can that be fulfilled in a weekly or twice-weekly event? If He meant such gatherings they would have to meet every day. Obviously He’s not talking about organized meetings, but spontaneous connections between believers learning to live together in God and finding occasion to cross each other’s lives daily.
Fourth, he specifically says the main reason for getting together is to encourage each other. Most people talk about attending our religious institutions today because of the need for accountability, not encouragement. That can have some painful, if unintentional results. Philip Yancey tells about a prostitute who was looking for help and was encouraged to go to church. She responded, “Why would I ever go there, I was already feeling terrible about myself. They’d just make me feel worse.”
Surprisingly, no Scripture assigns believers or leaders to provide accountability for each other. That is reserved for God alone. We are told to encourage each other and though that means at times we might have to confront or admonish, it does not mean we hold each other accountable.
Finally, he envisions believers connecting with each other all over the community. While claiming to be essential gatherings for believers, our Sunday morning events do more to fragment the body of Christ in any locality. Rather than connecting us with a wide-diversity of his people, we end up meeting with people who are just like us and who believe the same things we do.
TWO OR THREE TOGETHER
The writer of Hebrews was encouraging a relational connection between believers that goes far deeper than any religious service can offer. He was talking about the entire network of relationships God builds between believers and how important it is for us to let others into our lives. Don’t go it alone, when we can be so helpful to each other.
Paul gives us some insight as to why in Ephesians. He said that the fullness of God is revealed in the whole of the body, not in the individual believer. We won’t know enough on our own nor have enough strength. But how do we live that out? By being a spectator in a large gathering, or by sharing our lives with fellow travelers who are coming to know his life?
Even Jesus himself made it clear that the most powerful moments of body life happen in twos and threes, not in groups of hundreds. It’s where people can be known for who they are, loved through their most desperate pain, and discover God’s presence with others.
The most powerful example of that in this century happened in Red China during the communist regime. As people were forced underground by persecution they discovered the joy caring for one another, the focus of being excluded from the mainstream, and freedom from religions traditions, one-man leadership, and those who were not completely sold-out to God. How God’s life grew among them is the stuff of legend. But are we listening to the lessons they learned during that time? No! We’re too busy smuggling in our Christian programs so they can be more like us.
Circumstances forced them to embrace what the New Testament speaks so clearly. True body life cannot be embraced institutionally, it is the result of people who are passionately loving Father and learning how to live as a family with other brothers and sisters.
Sadly, many believers have never tasted of that kind of body life – holding no greater view of the ‘church’ life than to file in on Sunday, enjoy the performance and go back to their lives. However, when crisis hits and they need friendships to speak the life of God into their circumstances, no one is there for them. They will soon find that sitting through the performance has not adequately prepared them to face the darkest days of their lives.
FINDING THE FAMILY
Knowing God as Father leads to an engagement of his people as family. Do you sense that hunger stirring in you? It’s happening to people all over the world. Weary of the political games used to manipulate institutional power, or bored with the passive environment fostered in worship “services,” people are dropping out of organized religion in ever-greater numbers.
I know many of them have sadly given up on God, but many others hunger to share an authentic body life with other believers that allow Jesus to truly be at the center as we learn how to live in the full freedom of his life. Like many on the cutting edge of hunger, they may not know what they are really searching for. Since most of us have been steeped in religion most of our lives, we’re not sure where else to look. So we keep looking for an event, a group of people or a mentor to help us find a way, and often come away disappointed in the search.
As I said in the last issue, institutional dynamics will only produce a shadow of what family life really is. It cannot provide the reality. If relationship is what we hunger for, then we might want to think relationally. God’s kind of community isn’t produced by man’s ingenuity or program. It springs up organically among people who are learning to follow Jesus and see themselves as part of something larger than themselves.
Thus, finding Father’s family begins with Father, not with others. If he is not the object of your whole-hearted pursuit, you will miss so much that he has for you. Don’t begin with a program. Begin with him. Don’t let any expression of body life be a substitute for cultivating your own relationship with him. That’s how we often get it confused. We seek to relate to God by relating to others. The exact opposite is true. We learn to relate to others, but loving God first and foremost. Then you’ll be able to see how he is placing you in the family around you. Look at that in the whole of your locality, not just in a single group. God has people everywhere. Discovering how he wants to place you in it is a process that may encompass the following stages:
1. Spontaneous Fellowship: Getting connected in this family often begins with spontaneous fellowship. What hungry believers has God placed around you? These might be people you know that you invite over for an evening of fellowship, or share lunch together once and a while. It also happens in more serendipitous moments when you just happen to be standing in line at the store and find out the person next to you also loves the Lord.
God has many ways to bring his family together. Get to know the family that just moved into the neighborhood; invite the new employee home from work, or volunteer in your community and see who God brings near you. I’ll guarantee you’ll never look at people around you quite the same way again. They might be believers with whom you can share God’s life, or people who don’t know him at all whom you can love in his name.
Either way, this is where fellowship begins. People who meet find a bit out about each other and find that they hold the life of God in common. In my travels I have met people in every corner of the world who hunger to know the Living God, and find just a meal together, or staying over in the home of someone I’ve never met before begins a life-long relationship sharing our passion for Jesus.
Spontaneous fellowship can be fairly fluid. They may only last a few moments, or days, but sometimes they may go on to become far more significant. Look around you. The believers God wants you to experience body life with, may be closer to you than you think.
2. Developing Friendships: Out of these spontaneous encounters, you will find people with whom you seem to have a deeper connection. It is if the Holy Spirit is drawing you together to help each other in the journey.
Friendships develop because people make an effort to get together. They are in touch with each other every few days; look for things to do together and find themselves encouraged every time they come away from each other.
Friends don’t place expectations on each other, or use people for their own self-needs. Friends are those who can share their journey together under Father. They don’t seek to control each other, or toss another aside when they no longer meet their needs. Godly friendships look to share a journey together with ever-deepening honesty and vulnerability, always freeing the other person to be absolutely genuine.
Often friendships develop between people who help each other through difficult times. What often starts out merely as a compassionate act of ministry can easily become a close friendship. That’s why it is important to engage people in need around us, offering to support them and give what help you can to get them through a crisis.
Every true friendship we have with someone in Father’s family is an incredible treasure. They are worth every bit of time we give to cultivate them. The real ones last forever, even though time and circumstances may not make it possible to be together with great regularity. But when you do connect you can pick up right where you left off.
3. Intentional Community: As friendships develop, sometimes people find themselves wanting more. God made us for community, remember, and though we are linked by the cross to every other believer on the planet, one of the most valuable ways to experience his life is to explicitly share the journey with a group of friends.
Intentional community happens when an individual or family decides to join with others in sharing their journey. Realizing that Father has called them to walk together for a time which could range from a few months to a number of years, they choose to share their journeys together, both by gathering regularly for sharing, worship, prayer and study of the Word, and by staying in touch with each other through the week.
Listening to God together, guarding each other’s freedom in Christ, caring for each other in moments of need and being mindful of how God wants to use them to extend his kingdom seem to be some of the significant objectives of this kind of community.
The forms it takes, however, can vary greatly. House churches can look this way as do more loosely affiliated groups that often spring up within institutions. These are not held together by covenants or creeds, but by the choice people make to love deeply enough to stay with each other through the ups and downs of life, and to live their lives openly before each other. Though it probably demands an entire article some day, children fit into this environment with incredible ease and nothing will better prepare them to live a life-long adventure in Father’s family.
Why are such groups sometimes difficult to find? Because they require a level of individual initiative – that more programmed structures have robbed from God’s people. Either because they prefer everything to be spoon-fed to them, or because they’ve been taught to think they are incompetent to follow God without an ‘ordained’ leader handy, many believers have little time or energy to discover the fullness of living in Christ’s body that Father intended.
There are far easier ways to get together with Christians, but to discover the depth of what it means to live in Father’s family we cannot sit back and wait for someone else’s program. Instead we can choose to engage the lives of people God has placed around us looking for ways his life in us can bless others. As we recognize people God’s calling us to walk with we can combine our resources with those of other brothers and sisters and find ourselves far more equipped to stand in these increasingly-darker days.
That’s what the writer of Hebrews wanted you to know.
That’s what God is rebuilding in these days. Ask him to teach you how to see his church as he does, and live in the joy, power and freedom of that reality. Copyright 1999
THE SPIRIT OF FAMILY
No matter how independent we humans may try to be, there are times we can’t help wanting to share with others.
Special moments are like that. Over the past few months as Sara and I have walked along the beach, we’ve watched a pod of dolphins play in the waves, even body-surfing into the shore. We couldn’t help point them out to total strangers and stand there sharing the moment with them. It has been so incredible that I think we’ve also told it to just about every human being we’ve met.
We also enjoy having others around when we feel threatened, uncertain or in need of direction. The first time Sara and I tried to hike to Walling Lake in the Kaiser Wilderness, we weren’t certain at all if we were on the right trail. Imagine our joy at finding another group of hikers coming down that same trail. We were able to confirm our bearings and they were able to warn us of a marshy area ahead that was filled with mosquitoes so we could get our insect repellent on before we became their lunch.
And some of the things I least like to do alone are move, paint or pour cement. I don’t know how I would have gotten our triple dresser to the second-floor without some dear friends and family who helped us move. As much as I hate to do it myself, I also hate anyone else left to do it on their own.
Sharing special times, sharing information to help others along the way and sharing resources to help lighten the burden on someone’s shoulders… I can’t imagine a better description of what it means to be part of God’s family. Why doesn’t it always work out that simply?
THE LONGING FOR FAMILY
Maybe you’ve shared something special God showed you, only to have someone else dismiss it even as they tried to top it with their own discovery, or even worse tried to tell you how yours was flawed. Perhaps you’ve asked for help, only to have people ignore your pleas or send you down the wrong road, promising a reality you could never find. And in our day, fellowship has often become less about lightening another’s load as weighing others down with demands and expectations.
Is that why we live in a jaded age where many believers will only gather consistently to enjoy a polished performance; or else they retreat to themselves, doing the best they can on their own? Both options save us from having to get involved with anyone beyond a superficial level and rob us of one of the most incredible facets of being God’s child – life as a part of his awesome family.
The reason broken relationships in our own earthly families hurt so deeply, and why even in the face of such pain people still have an insatiable longing to be linked to family – is because God created us for it. Unfortunately, the body of Christ in our day has not had much better success finding a healthy family life. Many come away from experiences in the body of Christ crushed by the disappointed desire to find real community, caring and involvement, where every member has a significant place and every person is valued.
Unfortunately today, institutional priorities are usually the guiding force of the shared life of believers. We have blindly accepted their demands while failing to realize that those priorities are the opposite of family. Instead of celebrating diversity and authenticity, or making room for people to be different places in the journey, they are pressed into conformity. Smooth running programs are championed above building healthy relationships and the gifts of a few are exalted instead of unlocking the gifts of all. Institutions exist to secure their own preservation, rather than to embrace God’s wider work in the world and genuinely serving those who do not know him. It’s no wonder that these dynamics have proven more successful at entertaining crowds than nurturing Father’s family.
FORGETTING WHAT’S BEHIND
Anyone who has been involved in institutionalized Christianity know how quickly the relationships of the most well-intentioned become filled with some of the very deeds of the flesh Paul outlined in Galatians 5: … “hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy.” We can get caught up in those very actions even while thinking we are doing God’s will.
When the pain gets too intense, a faction breaks off to start a newer, better body. In a matter of years they are overtaken by the very things from which they fled. After a few experiences like this it’s no wonder many believers give up hope of ever finding vibrant body life.
But Father beckons us past our hurts and disappointments. I’ve heard horror story after horror story of people being exploited and manipulated by those who claimed to have God’s interests at heart. They were asked to defy their deepest convictions in the name of ‘love’ and ‘unity’, and when they would not, were vilified and excluded. As excruciating as those experiences can be, I still hear them hungering for real connections with other believers.
But for them to experience real body life they will have to follow their hunger even beyond their hurts and reactions to past failures. Perhaps it will help to realize that even though we were believers trying to follow God, those relationships may not have been built on the real spirit of Father’s family. Often they are focused more on what we felt we needed to get from others, not on what he freed us to give others.
It is easy to look at ourselves as victims and others as villains, when the truth is rarely that simplistic. Yes, you were probably manipulated by others, but isn’t it also true that we did some of our own manipulating? We expected people to act in certain ways and were disappointed when they didn’t. When we tried to get them to do it our way, we often resorted to tactics that Jesus never asked us to use.
Why? Because it is in our fallen nature to use organizations, when they meet our needs, and to abuse them when they don’t. In other words, the reason the spirit of family often decreases in proportion to the growth of an institution that tries to contain it, is because people begin to view it as the way to get our own needs met and their own preferences satisfied.
One former pastor I know defines institutionalized religion as the mutual accommodation of self-need. One has a need to teach, another to be taught. One has a need to lead worship, another to have a worship experience. One has a need to shepherd others; another has a desire to put their responsibility on someone else. When our needs bring us together, we will both be exploited as well as exploit others. It is no wonder that this approach fails to nurture an environment where people can live together as God’s family.
Thus the root of the problem is not our institutions, but our own self-needs and our attempts to get other people to fill up in us what we lack in our own relationship with God. You can almost find Scriptures to underscore that mistaken notion because God clearly works through others as the extension of his own hand. But that doesn’t mean that Jesus builds his body based on our self-needs. Far from it!
He builds family life only out of our relationship with him. As the Lord of Lords, the Head of the church, and the Savior of the world, all of our needs can only be dealt with in him. If they are legitimate he will meet them. If, instead, they are merely the tyrannical ravings of our flesh, he will want to set us free of them. Only when we get that straight are we ready for the kind of family life Jesus envisioned for us.
As we learn to trust him for everything – our fulfillment, our direction, our righteousness, our ministry, our resource – we can finally begin to share healthy relationships with other believers. Because our eyes are on Jesus to bring his life to us, we no longer have to manipulate others to get what we want. Though he will often use other believers to do that, he will rarely use ones we expect it from.
That’s why the Scriptures paint a far different picture of body life than we see today. It does not envision large institutions with hired staff and cumbersome overhead. Instead it depicts a group of people who are growing together to listen to Jesus; who intentionally and freely learn to share their lives without manipulating each other. The only body life the early church understood was the care, wisdom, and encouragement that people would share together in the reality of life.
They would not have conceived of the church as people lined up on benches. Instead they saw it as the whole body engaged in sharing special moments, helping each other on the journey and finding ways to lighten someone’s load. That’s why the life of the early church can be summed up in the ‘one another’ Scriptures laced throughout the New Testament.
This is how they saw their engagement of the Father’s family. Christ-centered friendships spilled over in acts of compassion and service through the daily course of human life. The body flourished only as each person was free to grow in Christ and valued for the gifts and insights they bring to the body. It was not a group of people that need to be managed or entertained; but a family who could mutually share in God’s life. No one needed to lord over the others. No one needed to feel spiritually inferior. Instead, they looked to Jesus to meet their needs, and lived intentionally to put others’ needs on par with our own.
FREELY RECEIVE, FREELY GIVE
Notice we don’t come to the body to get what we’re not finding in Christ. That’s backwards. We bring to the body the fullness of our relationship with him. That’s why Jesus didn’t tell us to “get love from one another” or to “get service from others,” but for us to “love one another,” and to “serve one another.” It’s not what we expect from others that allows us to experience body life, but by that which we intentionally give.
Jesus expressed it to his disciples this way: “Freely you have received, freely give!” Received from whom? Each other? No, they share what they received from him. I like the way The Message translates that portion: “You have been treated generously, so live generously.”
I love that because it puts things in their proper order. I can’t be generous until I’ve experienced in a daily way God’s generosity for me. And, where I’ve experienced his generosity, I can’t help but treat all others around me in the same way. The saddest believers to me are those who never seem to discover that generosity. Because they live on their own resources or expectations instead of embracing his life wholeheartedly, they come to view God as a meager God. They never have enough time and energy for themselves, much less be able to take an interest in others.
However, when we fill up on God’s incredible love for us and embrace his purpose in us, we don’t have to make other people its substitute. As people like that find each other along the way, something incredible happens, family! I’ve been picked up at the airport often by total strangers and by the time we get to their house feel as if we’ve known each other for a long time.
FRIENDS ON THE ADVENTURE
I honestly think if we worried less about trying to find ‘a church’ or trying to start a new one, and simply learned to live in Father’s love, while intentionally looking for opportunities to share that with others, that we would find ourselves in the midst of church every day.
The problem for many is that the life of trusting God is peripheral to their lives, and thus relationships with believers that are mutually – encouraging and edifying are as well. We think just because we sit in the same room with believers regularly and call it ‘family’ that we’re experiencing the fullness of it. The truth is, we probably haven’t even begun.
Let God become the sole source of every desire and need in your life. Go on the adventure of learning to trust him and you’ll soon find him connecting you with other believers who are on the same journey. It will be just like meeting other hikers in the back country. There will be immediate rapport, a willingness to share what you’ve experienced to help others, without the desire to force others to do what you’re doing.
If God leads you to find ways to get together and discover how to take an interest in each other, I can’t emphasize enough that this is an intentional choice to engage the family, pro-actively and become an active participant in helping others. It doesn’t just happen while we sit at home and twiddle our thumbs or sit in a service and watch the minutes tick by until the sermon ends. It happens as people go on an adventure with God and actively look to participate in other people’s lives as an encourager in the journey.
Where you hear of other believers near you sharing a similar passion, go check it out. I’ve been at a couple of gatherings this past summer where people chose to come great distances – just to meet others who were on this kind of journey. If there’s a group of you already trying to do that and feeling like it’s falling short, ask someone to help you talk it out together and hear what God is speaking.
There is nothing like the kind of relationships that allow us to share special moments, to help people further along in God’s life, and to lift the burdens in this life that weigh us down. It’s not nearly as difficult as you might think, and the joys are indescribable.
After all, its what he made you to be a part of! © Copyright 2000
GIVING AND GENEROSITY
“Follow the money!” The haunting words from Deep Throat, the unidentified Watergate informant for the Washington Post, proved to be the critical voice that unraveled the corruption in the Nixon White House.
I find it an interesting echo of Ecclesiastes 10:19, “Money is the answer for everything.”
When people ask me, “Why do all the TV preachers sound the same?” – I point them to Ecclesiastes. When I’m asked why organized religion works the way it does, I point them to Ecclesiastes. When they ask me, “How do I know what my heart really wants?” – I point them to Ecclesiastes.
In human terms, money is the answer for everything. How you view it and how you use it, will show you what you understand about Father’s work in your life.
Of all the questions I get about relational church life, “What do you think of tithing?” ranks right at the top with “What do we do about children?” Admittedly I traverse financial waters with great care since nothing has been more abused among God’s people in our day.
Usually those who speak about it, do so only to get their hands on more of it for themselves. So let me offer this one caveat at the beginning: There is no financial crisis here, and please don’t send us any contributions because you think this is a veiled appeal to do so. It is not, and if that is hard for you to believe, please feel free not to read any further.
So much of what has been said in this area – either burdens people with guilt or bribes them with false promises… of God giving them more money in return. I’ll risk being misunderstood because I want you to discover the joy and freedom of seeing Father’s hand in your giving, just as much as any other area of your life. I don’t pretend to have all the answers here or to offer a complete treatise on this subject, but I do want to share with you where the journey has led me in this area.
JESUS AND MONEY
Jesus spoke about money as much as he spoke about anything except relating to his Father. He said nothing reveals our affections more than that which we compile as treasure, or that which we freely share at God’s bidding.
Even a cursory reading of the Gospels reveals that he talked about it more than he talked about church, worship or even prayer. He warned us not to judge God’s fairness or generosity by it, and made it clear that the abundant life had nothing to do with the amount of money or possessions we have, but the simplicity of living in the freedom of his righteousness, the rest of his peace and the fullness of his joy.
The pursuit of money and the worries it creates has the capacity to choke out the life of the kingdom in any of his followers. It is better to give it away to the poor – than let it own your heart.
He also said that wise hearts would use money as a tool for God’s purpose in the world. It can open doors and minister to the needs of many, when it doesn’t own you. Use it responsively to Him and it can be a blessing to you and others. Hoard it and its promise quickly turns into a cage for a darkened heart.
With capacity for such good or such evil, how does he want us to handle our money?
This used to be real easy for me. Growing up I was taught that ten percent of everything I received belonged to God. I owed him that ten percent. That is tithing.
How I paid that tithe was to donate it to whatever local congregation I attended. Those in charge were free to use it for the needs of the fellowship – to procure a facility, to pay salaries, to fund its programs and also to help people in need. I was not free to give it where God might lead. If I wanted to give anywhere else, it would have to be above my tithe. That is storehouse tithing.
To be honest, I was never fully comfortable drawing the Biblical lines to that conclusion. Certainly Abraham tithed as an act of gratefulness to God – even before the law was given. It helped pay for the upkeep of God’s Temple and the Levites who cared for it. It was shared with the needy and also used to fund feasts for celebrating God’s life among them.
Admittedly, however, the New Testament is conspicuously silent about tithing as a practice of the early church. Nowhere is it encouraged and yet the generosity demonstrated by their giving to each other has not been rivaled since. For too many years I missed that, however, blinded by the pragmatic need to fund the facilities, salaries and programs of the institutions I served. Without committed tithers, we simply could not have funded the things we thought were so important to us. It was easy to co-opt the Old Testament tithe as an easy proof -text for our needs.
A DIFFERENT WAY OF GIVING
My conclusion now is quite different. No, I don’t believe tithing is wrong; I simply view it now like everything else in the Old Testament. It is only a shadow of something far more real that God wanted to show us in Jesus. And, like every other old covenant shadow, when you discover the real substance of giving you will see that tithing is a cheap substitute by comparison.
“You mean I don’t have to tithe?” I love the question, because it belies the motives that tithing too often taps. It’s a bill – an obligation we owe God. Once it is paid, we can run off with the remaining 90% and spend it however we like. Not to give it, in Malachi’s words, is to rob God of that which we owe.
The New Testament paints a far different picture. Jesus never mentioned tithing as a practice for his followers. And though giving is a constant theme of Acts and the Epistles, tithing is again not mentioned. Instead we see something else at work. Believers gave not because they had to, but because they chose to. Those who had been invited into relationship with the Living God, were so shaped and blessed by his generosity, that they responded to others around them with that same generosity. The giving that resulted outstripped anything tithing could ever accomplish.
Even when Peter addressed Ananias for lying about the money he was giving, he made it clear that the church had no claim on it. “Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal?” (Acts 5:5)
When Paul took up a collection for the famine-ravished believers in Jerusalem, he made clear that it was not his command, merely an opportunity. “Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” (2 Cor. 9:7)
Ultimately, giving because we have to is not really giving at all. It is just another obligation to meet and a far cry from what God really had in mind all along.
In fact Paul was shocked at how the Macedonians, who were in the midst of poverty themselves, responded to the need. “Out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the saints.” (2 Cor. 8:2-4)
Does that sound like tithing? Would tithing have resulted in such overwhelming action? I don’t think so! Here were believers who were so blessed by God’s generosity toward them that even out of their own need they could respond with generosity to others.
I love how the New Testament puts the focus where it belongs. We don’t give money to God so God will act generously toward us. Rather, he begins the cycle. Having overwhelmed us with his generosity, we will respond in the same way to others.
But there is a catch here, isn’t there? What if I don’t feel God is being generous with me, do I still give to others? Paul said that giving and receiving in the body does go in cycles. Those who have plenty today, might well be those who in need tomorrow. The goal is to share so that no one has too much or too little.
But how much is too much and how little is too little. While I think it’s obvious that almost every one of us who live in first-world countries are incredibly wealthy financially by world standards, so few people really know God’s generosity. Why?
The reason so few people really understand God’s generosity results from two realities. First, they measure it by what they perceive to be their wants and needs. Comparing our homes, cars and toys to others in the culture leads to envy and greed. In the face of our demands God will rarely seem generous.
Paul understood God’s generosity at a far deeper level than material comfort. He said he knew the secret of contentedness whether he enjoyed an abundance or whether he suffered in need. Because he was focused on God’s agenda for his life and not his own, he saw God’s hand of generosity in every area of his life. Look at how he described it: “And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.” (2 Cor. 9:8, emphasis mine)
I have lived most of my spiritual life like a son of a stingy Father. Not ever having all I wanted and often being disappointed by his response to some of my most fervent prayers, I lived with a nagging disappointment in God. Yes, I could express thanks and praise as well as the next person intellectually, but underneath I felt cheated and was continually frustrated by the things he did not do that I expected of him.
It has only been in the last six years as God has dismantled my agenda for my own life that I have been able to see a glimpse of what Paul is talking about here. Because I was so busy trying to get God on my page, I couldn’t see the incredible things he was doing in my life every day. When I start everyday without my own preferences for how I want things to turn out, I find myself constantly amazed at what God is doing in my life and genuinely thankful at every turn. If he doesn’t give me something, it’s because I really don’t need it.
This is why our expectations are disappointed so often. It’s not because God doesn’t care about us, but because he is committed to freeing us from the tyranny of self. Only then can we enjoy God’s resources and discover just how generous he is.
HOW DOES IT WORK?
Living in God’s generosity leads to a life of generosity with our money, our time and our spiritual life. Since God takes such incredible care of us we no longer have to live self-focused lives. Thus it will be easier for us to see ways God wants us to help others.
Remember the Macedonians who gave so much even though they were in need? Did that happen because they were committed to tithing? No. As Paul wrote, “They did not do as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then to us in keeping with God’s will.” (2 Cor. 8:5)
Simply, they heard God and did what he asked them. It was greater than Paul could conceive. Those who are convinced that giving to God is nothing more than paying ten percent as an obligation, will never understand giving like this.
A few times every year, I get calls from people whom God has led out of abusive institutions. They tell me that God has led them to send their tithe from now on to Lifestream. My answer is always the same. After thanking them for their thoughtfulness, I steer them away from any regular commitment. “If God puts it on your heart to send us something this month, please do so. If God puts it on your heart to send us something the next month, then do that. If in the following months God leads you to do something else with your gifts, then by all means do that.” Never has any of those people given to us more than a month or two. Hopefully they are learning a better way to give.
A LIFE OF GIVING
Each day God wants you to taste of his generous love, and then show you how he wants to channel his generosity through you to touch others. As I see it, Scripturally you are not obligated to give that to any specific location. He will show you where to give when you are led by him and not swayed by the appeals and demands of those who always claim to be in crisis.
Those who gather in more relational settings and have no need to spend significant funds on facilities, salaries or programs, often find creative ways to see God use their generosity. They give to those in need, to extend the light of God’s kingdom in the world, even to support ministry projects they feel called to aid.
They may do that together, or separately. I know one group in Australia that collected offerings into a combined account to distribute it on behalf of the group. After spending six weeks disagreeing over how to distribute it, they decided to give everyone their money back and let them give as they felt led. They choose to spend their time encouraging each other’s faith in stead of spending each others offerings.
I know others who put a specific amount of money in their wallet each month and see where God might want them to give it at serendipitous moments throughout their week.
Notice I am not saying it is sinful to give ten percent to the group you regularly gather with if God so asks you. In fact, I think people whom God has blessed who are not willing to share the financial load of that which they benefit from might well reconsider whether or not God has called them to be part of it.
But God’s way of giving makes tithing a mere shadow by comparison. Those who discover God as the generous Father will give beyond ten percent, just by doing what God asks of them. What’s more, because it’s not a bill they pay, but an extension of his generosity, they will give with a passion that not only transfers funds, but builds relationship as well.
Why embrace the shadow, when you can enjoy the reality behind it? That holds true for so much in this kingdom, doesn’t it? © Copyright 2000
REASONS TO RUN
“You must stay with him. That is only way God will bless.”
I heard the words, but was so shocked by them that for a moment I doubted my own ears. I was sitting at the table of a woman who was ready to divorce her husband of two years. I knew the abuse she had suffered at her new husband’s hands and the risk she felt that her children from a previous marriage were under in continuing to live with him.
There’s no doubt the situation was messy. Many of us had wept, prayed and counseled with both of them as the situation unfolded. A few days earlier another couple had asked me to go with them as they shared with her a word the Lord had put on their heart for her. When they dropped the bomb on her so unequivocally demanding her compliance, I knew something was desperately wrong.
I turned to face Beth (not her real name). She was obviously as taken back by their words as I was. Before she could speak, I opened a door for her escape.
“Of course, Beth, you know that words like this are only valid to the degree that they confirm what God has already put in your heart. If not, you’re free to disregard it.” In the next few moments she told us that she didn’t agree with what she had just been told. She had been seeking the Lord diligently and was getting counsel from two women in the fellowship we knew to be godly. Both of them had affirmed her decision to separate.
“Then feel free to pursue that,” I told her. “If God has anything else in mind, I’m sure he will make it clear to you.”
Outside her home, the couple tore into me on the driveway. “What were you doing in there? We had God’s word for her and you gave her all the excuse she needed to ignore it.” No amount of explaining soothed their anger, and I knew that if something didn’t change in the weeks ahead, I would not be able to serve alongside them much longer.
As much as Scripture invites us to run with open arms into relationships with other believers, it also warns us that not all relationships are healthy ones. Failure to understand that, cause many to be trapped in destructive relationships that will not only erode their own walk with God but also will in time cultivate a cynicism about others that will make them withdraw from healthy relationships.
NOT AN EASY OUT
Scripture talks in no uncertain terms about the value of walking alongside other brothers and sisters of the faith. What each of us knows and sees on our own is only a small part of all that God is. As he connects us to other brothers and sisters who are discovering that same life we begin to get a fuller picture of him. That’s why he defined his body as “the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.”
When those relationships work well they will encourage us to stay the course, comfort us through our darkest moments and help us keep our trust in God when we’re tempted to place it elsewhere. There is no treasure greater in this world than sharing that kind of friendship with believers who are committed to God’s work in your lives.
Everything I write here presupposes that truth. I know how easily these words can be used to excuse those who want to be lone rangers in the body of Christ. Do that at your peril. I want no part in it because our God is a reconciling God and his purpose in Christ is to bring all things together in him.
Where we are coming to discover his heart we will not be looking for excuses to distance ourselves for others just because a relationship goes through a difficult moment. Any deep friendship I’ve ever had as at times traversed deep waters where misunderstanding, human weakness and personal failures caused hurt and confusion. If we bail out whenever relationships get difficult, we will never know just how truly awesome friendships in Christ can be.
However, I often cross paths with believers who are plagued by relationships where other believers are manipulating and controlling them. Wanting to be humble and open, they make room in their lives for the wrong kind of counsel and advice and are overwhelmed with guilt when they can’t satisfy what others expect of them.
That’s why the New Testament not only tells us to love each other deeply, bear with each other through the tough stuff, and forgive each other’s faults as they arise; but it also warns us to recognize when relationships turn destructive and to take proper distance from them.
HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH…
Paul put it in the simplest terms possible, “Have nothing to do with them.” He used the same phrase in a variety of circumstances to help us recognize the signs that the relationship we’re having with another believer is not going to help us know God better and follow him more closely. He warns us to step aside from them, not in judgment or anger, but simply so that they will not swallow up our spiritual passion nor lead us astray.
These may not always be easy to recognize, especially when they come from people we care about, or even those who have helped us in the past. It is often the most well-intentioned people in our lives that will unwittingly make it more difficult for us to do what God asks.
Jesus faced that reality with one of his closest friends. When he told Peter about his journey to Jerusalem and his impending death on the cross, Peter jumped to his defense vowing to prevent such a thing from happening. His best friend had become the voice of the evil one. Jesus had to put that talk behind him knowing how seductive Peter’s misplaced love could prove to Jesus’ obedience to his Father.
To recognize when our relationships with believers move into treacherous waters does not mean we have to judge people or their motives. We only have to recognize that their words and actions are doing more to prevent us from following God than they are encouraging us to do so. We don’t take distance from them as if we are superior to them, or because they’ve become evil, but simply knowing that they will be an occasion for us to trip over our own worst motives. His desire was not to spawn separatism or oneupsmanship, but that the environment of body life you live in would be conducive to real spiritual encouragement and growth. So what can we watch out for?
The Pharisees’ Yeast (Matt. 16:6;12; 2 Tim. 3:2-5): Jesus warned his disciples to steer well clear of it and Paul did as well when he spoke of those with a ‘form of godliness, but denying its power.’ What were they talking about? They both refer to busybodies who are always pressuring people to conform to their standard of morality. Because their righteousness is conformity-based it is only an outward pretense and does not reflect what’s really inside. I knew one brother who made young couples embarrass themselves by confessing that they had premarital sex at their own wedding while he was hiding an affair in his own closet.
These people can forever justify anything they do even though you have often witnessed the disparity between what they appear to be and who they really are. Like yeast, this attempt to make themselves look good while trying to change others is incredibly contagious and before you know it, you’ll find ourselves doing it to others. Because righteousness can only come from God’s transforming work inside of us, no one who has experienced it ever tries to force it on others. They know it simply won’t work that way.
Dividing Lines (Titus 3:10): These people think they can judge between those who belong to God and those who do not. Thus they have an obsession with controversy and gossip, leaving a wake of broken relationships wherever they go. These are not always easy to spot because their rhetoric of theological purity disguises their real bent. They love to hold institutional power and accuse others of being divisive who do not conform to their way of doing things. Just remember it is never divisive to raise honest concerns or ask the difficult questions.
Because each of us only has a handle on but a facet of God’s glory the desire to make our part the whole jewel has fragmented Christianity into a thousand brand names with pet doctrines and personal preferences of worship styles that has splintered the body of Christ around the world. When I was in Nepal before Christianity was legalized in that country, I witnessed an incredible amount of love and unity in their shared sufferings. It wasn’t long, however, after Christianity was legalized that denominations of every stripe came in and divided up the body of Christ by offering monthly stipends to those who would affiliate with them. Don’t be a party to division. Don’t be sucked into the notion that your way of doing things is the best or only thing God is doing in the world, or you will find yourself swirling about in a whirlpool of self-righteousness and miss the bigger work God is doing in our world.
Misplaced Confidences (Phil. 3:1-11): The number one assault on the early church was to forsake their trust in God’s ability to accomplish his work in them and then strive to do by their own effort. Nothing better sidetracks believers today either. Those who place confidence in the flesh will be a constant stumbling block to those wanting to learn the life of trust. When you see people blaming others or passing out lists of things you can do to be a better Christian, you better know you’re with people who are placing their confidence in something other than the work of God himself.
Rationalized Sins (I Cor. 5:1-13): All of us struggle with temptation and sin and our ongoing assessment and honesty about our weaknesses is a key ingredient to real body life. When people rationalize their failures to justify themselves, they have missed the essence of what it is to live as broken people at the foot of Jesus. God does not love us because we do nothing wrong, God loves us because he loves us; and sinners are who he came to redeem. We don’t have to change the definition of sin to think ourselves righteous, but rather find in our own temptations even more reason to draw near the only one who can transform us. Unfortunately we only think of sexual sins in this way, but Paul’s list to the Corinthians also included such things as greed, idolatry, swindling and slander.
Being Number One (Col 2:16-22 3 John 9): Whether by selfish ambition or a mistaken idea of what leadership in the body is all about, many people seek to have first place in any expression of the body. Though that place is reserved for Christ alone, they think it is theirs and act that way by demanding that their wisdom prevails, their preferences are served and their plans to be viewed as God’s plans. They think it is their responsibility to manage other people’s spirituality and are threatened by anything less than unquestioned obedience. You’ll know you’re near one of these when they force you to choose between submitting to them and doing what you honestly feel that God has put on your heart.
STEP AWAY QUIETLY!
Of course, who of us can honestly say we haven’t fallen into one or more of these traps from time to time ourselves? That’s what makes them so destructive. They offer us the very things our flesh craves – acceptance, feeling of superiority, and control. Hang around believers who live like that and you will find all the excuse you need to be like them. We take distance from them because they will rob us of the hunger of listening to God every day and following him.
The reason Paul gave us these instructions is so that we could follow God’s leading when he encourages us to step away from a destructive relationship and not feel guilty about it. We have pursued such a false notion of unity in the body of Christ that many of us feel the need to pretend fellowship even with those who are hurtful and destructive in the life of the body.
Please notice that Paul never asks us to distance ourselves from the people of the world. How else will they ever come to experience God’s love if it is not through people like us loving them even in the midst of their worst failures and sins? The danger of distraction doesn’t come from the world, but from so-called believers whose misguided notion of the life of God provides easy distractions to the depth of his calling.
When John wrote that many antichrists had already gone out into the world, he was not talking about wicked people who actively opposed Jesus Christ. Rather, he was identifying those who appeared to be inside the faith who would draw dependence on themselves rather than on Christ alone. They were of the antichrist spirit because they sought to take his place in the lives of the faithful. It is a tragic commentary on our time that so many would-be leaders in the God’s church today feel they can only fulfill their calling by making people dependent on them. The results are always disastrous.
Of course having the freedom to run doesn’t mean we have to run. People that act destructively are themselves broken and fractured people. They need love to. If God graces you to stay near them to love them and you can do it without compromising your own relationship with him, by all means do it!
But when you recognize that another believer is distracting you from the real prize of knowing him, you don’t have to go on a tirade. You don’t have to confront, accuse and try to prove you’re right. You don’t even have to overreact and become the lone ranger. All you have to step away quietly from them and spend your time in the body of Christ with those relationships that stimulate you to draw closer to God and recognize his work in you.
With the demands of life pressing us from every side, time is just too short to waste our energies on other believers filled with manipulation, gossip and division. When you have a chance to be with other believers don’t you want it filled with encouragement, revelation and humility?
After all, life in the Body of Christ shouldn’t make you doubt his ability to work in you, but to help you trust him even more.
After this article was published, I had the following email exchange with a reader that clarified some issues in this article. I include it here: I found myself being troubled at a foundational level when reading “Reasons to Run” in the March issue of BodyLife. The troubling may have come because of a certain conviction I hold from the Word that you may have inadvertently left out. After all, the whole concept behind the gift of His love and grace is to empower us to become like Him, which in its fullness, is the power to be free to obey in all loving devotion to Him, making reconciliation with man by His love. I know you alluded to this kind of faith, but, failed to bring it out in regards to the woman seeking a divorce. This was troubling.
Wayne’s Response: I guess the opening illustration I chose was a poor one. I related that opening story only to demonstrate how abusive leadership can be when it presumes to speak into someone’s pain without even listening to what they had been through and what they were hearing from the Lord. The ‘reasons to run’ were about taking distance from destructive relationships in body life and were not meant to be taken as justification for divorce. I truly regret using the illustration and lending that confusion to the article. But I do appreciate you raising it with me. While I believe that no human relationship is outside the scope of God’s healing, I also realize in situations like the one I used here that it takes engagement by both parties to bring reconciliation. That was not possible in this situation at that time. © Copyright 2001
WHY HOUSE CHURCH ISN’T THE ANSWER
When 20 years of countless prayers didn’t fix it, I had to conclude either that God was ignoring me, or that I was asking for the wrong thing. Anxiety used to be my constant companion, and quite honestly he was no fun to hang with. He used to punch me in the pit of the stomach when I least expected it and his ravings kept me awake at night.
Every time a circumstance emerged that caused him to appear, I begged God to change it so I would not be anxious. Rarely, if ever, did he answer those prayers. Finally, I concluded that the circumstances were not the problem, but the anxiety itself was. My prayers changed. I stopped begging him to fix my circumstances and instead asked him to remove my anxiety. It only took a decade this time for me to realize these prayers weren’t working any better and I grew incredibly frustrated at God’s seeming indifference to my concerns.
I didn’t know then that in God’s heart my problem was not the circumstances that allowed my anxiety to emerge, nor even the anxiety itself. The problem God wanted to fix was the fact that I didn’t trust him to work in my circumstances to accomplish his purpose. My desire to be in control of my own life and achieve the success I thought I needed to prove my worth to him, and ultimately to myself, was the real captor.
Anxiety was only the symptom of a deeper need that God wanted to expose and heal with a clearer revelation of who he is and what he wanted to do in me. Many of you have read the chronicle of that journey in these newsletters and in ‘He Loves Me!’ The more he showed me how great he was and how much he loved me, the less often I met with anxiety. Even though my circumstances had not changed, my trust in him had. I have ended up not even wanting God to satisfy my agenda anymore, but just to let me live in his every day.
In my best wisdom I had been trying to get God to fix the wrong thing. Real freedom didn’t lie in conforming my circumstances to my expectations or simply removing my anxious thoughts. He wanted to build a relationship with me that would set my heart at rest regardless of the circumstances that came my way. For thirty years I had sought a cheap substitute for the real fix.
I see people doing the same thing in discovering how to be part of God’s church. Having seen the weaknesses and failures of many religious structures, they have turned toward house church as the answer for authentic church life. Unfortunately, they are likely to be as disappointed there.
IT’S NOT THE FORM
For those who read BodyLife, you know I love seeing the body of Christ find ways to live out its faith and fellowship in household-sized groups where people can be active participants together in the journey of faith. The early church found the home to be the most natural environment for people to share God’s life together.
It is easy to convince people that house church just might be the answer to all they’ve desired in body life – that is, until they get involved in one. It quickly becomes evident that meeting in a home isn’t necessarily all it’s cracked up to be. What do we do about the people who only want to use the group for their own needs? Where can we find enough people willing to pay the price to share that kind of life together? What do we do when the meeting is boring and we’re tired of staring at each other?
Moving things out of a larger building and into a home does not, of itself, answer anything of substance. While it does provide the possibility of more active participation and deeper relationships, just sitting in a house together for a meeting does not guarantee that those things will happen. If people aren’t discovering the substance of what it means to live as the church, changing the mechanics will only provide a platform for people to commandeer the group in their thirst for leadership or pull it down by trying to make their needs or passions the focus of the group.
What’s wrong with the way we do church today has far less to do with the forms we use than it does the journey we are on. If we are looking for house church to meet the needs that more institutional forms couldn’t touch, we are likely to be disappointed by our experiences in house church. Any time we begin with our needs as the focus, instead of God’s purpose, we will end up disappointed by the results.
MUTUAL ACCOMMODATION OF SELF-NEED
Like my attempts to get God to fix my anxiety, my way, many of us are programmed to try to relate to God through our needs. If we begin to build our sense of church based on those self-needs, we will only end up frustrated with a cheap counterfeit of the real church God has created us to embrace. If we are looking to relate to the church because we need acceptance, or security, or a place to demonstrate our gifts, or people to love us in a certain way or someone to tell me how I should live in Christ, we’re already headed the wrong direction.
Most people never see that because the things they want, like being free from anxiety, are not evil things. It’s the way we go about getting them met, that provides the real trap. A friend of mine who was a denominational pastor for many years, in the end defined much of organized religion as the mutual accommodation of self-need. Some people need to lead; others need to be led. Some need acceptance and others relish in acting as their savior. Some need to get up front and sing; while others want to sit through a moving service. Some people have a passion for children’s ministry and others just want to drop their children so others will disciple them.
His contention was that congregations exist only as long as they can effectively overlap these needs. When they do, the congregation gets along famously. When they don’t they get trapped in gossip, power-struggles, and people leaving to find congregations that will meet their needs or form new ones with a different group in control. There the cycle begins all over again while most never realize that the life of the church is not built on our self-needs, but on God’s purpose in his people.
Changing the venue from a building to a home doesn’t solve this problem. If we’re going to seek to find church life by having our needs accommodated by others, we will find moments of fulfillment mingled with long, dry periods of discontent and frustration.
Experiencing the joy of authentic fellowship begins when we realize that all our dependence must be centered on Jesus himself. We don’t share fellowship because we need to. We don’t do it to get our needs met. True fellowship can only be known where our dependence upon Christ spills out in our love for others. Knowing the joy and freedom of his life, we can’t help but share it with others.
Scripture is clear. True life is only found in Jesus. There is life in no other – not even a correct arrangement of Christians in houses or buildings. That’s what Paul meant when he called Jesus the Head of the Church, declaring that it was God’s purpose for him to “have first place in everything.” Our needs are not the focus of body life. His presence living among us is.
We’ve taught for years the mistaken notion that we need to go to church to fill up on the life of God. Not true! We can only fill up on God’s life through a transforming relationship with the Father through his Son. We were never meant to come to fill ourselves with church, but to live full of him and then share his life together with God’s people.
Here is the problem with most of what passes for church life today, including many house churches: Rather than teaching people how to live dependent on Jesus Christ, it supplants that dependency by its misguided attempt to take the place of Jesus in people’s lives. Instead of teaching them how to live in him, they make them dependent on the structures and gatherings of what we call church. Our expressions of church life just become another thing to stand in the way of people living deeply and fully in him.
But people who are learning to live deeply in a relationship with Jesus will find the sheer joy of sharing life with others who are doing the same. They can cross paths for a moment, or walk together for years, without having to manipulate or control each other. Because those people will realize that Jesus is the only one in control after all.
Unfortunately most believers have no idea how to live that way. We seem content to keep them dependent on our programs and services. It explains why so many expressions of church always promise more than they deliver. We can tinker forever with different methods of church life, but if we don’t get this right, all our efforts will fall short. If you need help find some people who are living this way, who are not gathering a ‘band of disciples’, and ask for their help.
Church life grows out of a group of people who are focused on Jesus. Focus on the church, and you will always be disappointed. Focus on Jesus and you will find him building the church all around you.
EVERYWHERE A MOVEMENT
Everywhere I go now, people ask me about the ‘house church movement,’ hoping it will provide the answer to their hunger for real body life. While I greatly prefer relational environments to institutional ones, every time I hear the word ‘movement’ my heart sinks. I’m convinced that the day we call what God’s doing a movement is the day it has already begun to die. I’ve seen many movements come and go – Charismatic, discipleship, deliverance, healing, intercession, spiritual warfare, prophetic, worship, and apostolic just to name a few. All of them came up hollow in the end, not because God wasn’t in some of it, but because people hijacked his work to serve their own needs and ambitions.
Calling something a movement inflates our own sense of importance and separates us from the multi-faceted working of God that transcends any particular way of doing things. Many years ago I was part of a denomination that called itself a movement. We used that term to make people feel that they were part of something more significant than other ‘less enlightened’ believers who didn’t do things the way we did. I think God grieves at such distinctions.
Labeling the joy of learning to share Christ’s life in our homes as the ‘House Church Movement’ takes our focus off of Christ and puts them either on the uniqueness of our methods or the voices of self-appointed experts. Either way, we trade our focus on Jesus for our own self-needs and miss the joy of authentic body life.
Sitting in a home in Buffalo, NY recently a friend handed me a new book the house church movement. The subtitle nearly floored me, “from the Radical Men Who Are Leading this Revolution.” One of the authors I considered friend enough to write and ask him if he could explain to me how the cover of his book was anything less than blasphemous.
If the church is truly the work of Jesus, and in it He has first place in everything, how does anyone claim to lead what God is doing? It is either His work or it isn’t? Please understand I don’t think these are malicious men out to harm God’s church. These, in particular, honestly want to see the church come to some kind of wholeness, freedom and life. However, the way they go about it, demonstrates that while they understand a bit of God’s ways, they’ve come to know little of His character.
So while their book highlights many of the ways God has asked us to share His life together, it’s laced with the poisonous notion that we can produce that life by getting the mechanics right or by following the right leader. Such teaching actually circumvents the priorities it espouses by imposing a structure that will undermine those priorities.
Of course my friend did not agree with me. In fact, he said, the book was selling briskly. I have no doubt of that. Part of the reason we create movements is because people want models they think they can simply implement in their own communities.
Many people ask me for a model for church life, hoping some future book might lay it out for them. I hate to disappoint them, but I don’t even believe there is a model they can implement that will produce the vitality of authentic fellowship. It is not produced in mechanics but in the hearts of people God is transforming to be like himself.
You can take the most biblical guidelines in the world and if you implement them at the expense of learning how to live dependent upon Jesus, and the result is that it will still only be a substitute for Jesus presence, rather than a place where fellow-pilgrims share his life together.
Jesus did not leave us with a model to build, but a guide to follow. We experience the life of the church not because we meet a certain way or in a certain place, but because we learn to listen to God together and let him teach us how to share his life. If we substitute any method or design for that process, we will end up following it instead of him and building a counterfeit instead of the real deal. I know of no greater distraction to the depth of relationships God wants us to share, than when we give our best efforts to doing something great for God. He didn’t ask us to work for him, but with him.
Beware of any model or would-be leader who wants to tell you what to do, rather than help you hear Jesus. Are there real leaders in the Body of Christ today? Of course! But they are not heading up movements or devising models, they are helping people know who Jesus really is and learn how to follow him. Religion results when men and women, with their best intentions, best activities and best programs try to accomplish God’s working. It always leads to well-intentioned programs that will do some good, but never rise to bear the great fruits that God intends and only he can accomplish.
Many think I’m so concerned about organized religion because I’ve been hurt by the worst of it. That isn’t quite true. I think it’s greatest danger comes not when it is obviously flawed, but when it works well – giving people an aesthetic experience or a place to park their guilt, and missing out on a real engagement with the King of Glory. When it convinces us that sitting in the same room or greeting each other briefly in the parking lot is real fellowship, we’ll miss the greater joy of supportive relationships that will help us all respond better to what God is doing in us.
ACCEPT NO SUBSTITUTES
What I love about the work of the Spirit in our day is that it is not being driven by an organization, a book or a charismatic speaker. God’s Spirit is creating a hunger in his people that defies the confines of religion or a particular way of doing things, and seeks to drink deeply of his presence and share an effective life with other fellow travelers.
Some people are finding others with that hunger inside more institutional congregations, and some are finding them outside of it. If you haven’t found people like that yet, don’t despair. God has not made all the connections he is going to make. Just don’t over trade the passion in your heart to settle for a shadow of body life and miss the real thing.
Real body life allows Jesus to have first place in everything, and encourages people to the heights of knowing him. It frees people on the journey of being transformed by God to be authentic and not have to conform or pretend. It shows them how to get involved in each other’s lives, not to manipulate others but to encourage God’s greatest work in their lives.
Why is that so difficult to find? It may be that too many believers are so focused on their own needs they don’t know how to engage others in true fellowship. It may be that we settle for cheap models that do some good in the short-term, but in doing so disarm the deeper yearnings for authentic body life. It may be that we’ve never learned the sheer joy of letting Jesus be the Head of his church.
If we don’t get this right, it won’t matter where or how we meet. It will still be centered on us, and fall far short of his glory. Why don’t you ask God to teach you how to let Jesus have first place in your heart and to help you find people who share that passion? I can’t imagine a prayer that would excite him more and when that happens he will show you how and where you can live out that life in him. © Copyright 2002
WE ALREADY HAVE A SHEPHERD
In Collaboration with Kevin Smith – Friend form Australia
LEADERSHIP IN THE RELATIONAL CHURCH
What did Jesus have in mind when he spoke of leadership among the incredible community of the Body of Christ?
Here is the best definition I’ve ever heard of spiritual leadership: If you were going to be caught in your worst failure, who would you want to catch you?
If you really want to experience the fullness of life in Jesus, wouldn’t you want someone who would treat you as gently as Jesus treated the woman at the well while offering you the truth in a way that you could understand and follow into God’s freedom?
I have not heard a simpler statement that summarizes the way Jesus lived and what he taught his disciples about leadership in his church. Even Paul’s lists of qualifications in Timothy and Titus point out those who had walked with Jesus long enough to be transformed by him in a way that could be clearly seen in their families, in the community and their freedom to live the truth and thus be able to help others in the way Jesus would.
Perhaps the question I’m most asked in my travels is, “How do you see leadership functioning among people who embrace relational Christianity?” The question itself points out two significant problems with our perception of church. First, it is so dependent on the leadership of men and women that many cannot imagine how to function without it. That is tragic, because if our dependency isn’t in Christ we will never discover the power and simplicity of body life.
Second, our perception of leadership is so imbedded in managing or controlling institutions, that we cannot recognize it without titles and positions. Jesus said leadership in his kingdom would not need either and would serve an entirely different function than it does in the world. Unfortunately we’ve allowed ourselves to be squeezed into the world’s mold on this one.
If you can, set aside all your preconceived notions of human leadership and read the New Testament again with a fresh eye. The leadership of Father’s family is clearly placed in the hands of Jesus as its Head, and the Spirit as the one who joins us together and sets us in the body as he desires. Human leadership is not the main focus of Christ’s body. Jesus hardly mentions it and most of the letters don’t reference it at all.
But there were leaders in the early church, people protest, and I wholeheartedly agree. The important question is, just what kind of leaders were they?
“Our perception of leadership is so imbedded in managing or controlling institutions, that we cannot recognize it without titles and positions.”
NOT SO WITH YOU!
“You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:42-45)
Clearly Jesus warned his disciples that in God’s reality leadership serves a different function than it does in the world because it is not based on management. Yet many books on Christian leadership today are so easily adapted to the business world. That alone should make us stop and question.
Jesus didn’t view leadership as the power to command, but the passion to serve people as they sort out what it means to live as God’s children? In the last decade my understanding of leadership has changed completely. I used to see it in terms of power – thinking leadership was defined by influence, institutional power or the value of their giftedness.
That’s not so in God. Those who have helped me most to grow in Father’s love, surprisingly enough, don’t hold positions of power but simply loved me enough to point out the way to God’s heart and then let me decide if I wanted to follow it. In fact, those I meet now who are most transformed by Father’s character disdain the power of the institutions I thought so essential to the kingdom. They reject anything that doesn’t reflect the childlike freedom to walk together focused on doing what pleases our Father.
The first person I ever met like that shocked me. Whenever he opened his mouth, wisdom poured out in the simplest terms. He knew more about God than I’d ever hope to and his calm spirit mirrored the nature of Jesus that I’d read about it in the Gospels.
He had been a pastor for a number of years, but left during a brutal congregational fight rather than resort to their tactics to secure his place. For the next 15 years he hung wallpaper, which I thought he was doing just to pay the bills until he could find another ministry position. I was wrong! But I really didn’t realize how wrong until one day when I told him we were considering him as a future elder and eventually as full-time staff.
To my absolute shock, he listened for a while and then shook his head. “I’m just not interested,” he said. When I pressed him as to why he just smiled and told me that I would understand some day.
I think now that I know what he means. Those who most effectively function in leadership in this body don’t need titles, salaries or positions of authority. In fact, those things will only distract from God’s calling. Those who have been shaped by Christ’s life know there is an inherent conflict between spiritual authority and institutional power. Unfortunately, most people in the institution don’t understand this truth, and they continue to be hurt by those who act as leaders and fail to recognize true leadership God has so generously scattered throughout his body. Perhaps we need to think differently.
TRANSFORMED LIVES NOT CREDENTIALS
I’ll never forget the first time I saw ‘Rev. Wayne Jacobsen’ pressed on an office door. Even with my vocational mindset of ministry 27 years ago it was a shock. I was 22 with a BA in Bible and two weeks experience in marriage. How was I supposed to be a leader among the body of Christ? It would be laughable now if it were not so tragic. Even though God used that time in my life in spite of how deeply I misunderstood him, I realize now how little my life at that point reflected God’s priorities.
Though I couldn’t recognize it at the time I know now that I was driven less by a desire to serve others as I was to satiate my ego by trading on my speaking ability and proving my worth by influencing as many people as possible. What’s even stranger is that people did so without even questioning whether this is what God wanted.
Today people qualify for leadership based on their university degrees, eloquence, Biblical knowledge or their ability to draw a crowd, manage a vision or manipulate people to help them achieve their goals. If they draw a salary from a religious institution or hold a title we believe them to be leaders even if their lives don’t reflect his life.
Will that ever change? Not on this side of eternity! We have spawned an entire industry of seminaries and institutional positions to ‘prepare’ people to lead our religious institutions. They come out with $30,000.00 of debt and the need to find a career to justify that expense. All the while they have never even had the time to be transformed by the life of Christ and to demonstrate it in their personal life. No wonder there is so much failure and error among those who seek to lead in the Body of Christ.
Mostly well-intentioned men and women get into ‘the ministry’ for all the right reasons and then stay for all the wrong ones. The New Testament recognizes leadership by the evidence of a transformed life that lives in vital, daily, dynamic, relational connection with the head. People could tell they had been with Jesus. It didn’t matter what gifts they possessed or lacked, only that their character had been transformed to such an extent that they began to treat others the way Jesus would – with the same mix of truth and tenderness.
That’s why it so important that every believer be thoroughly acquainted with the Jesus of the Bible, because the only way we can recognize Godly leadership among us is when people reflect his glory, his truth and his demeanor in the way they live.
SUPPLEMENTS NOT SUBSTITUTES
The body of Christ can only be healthy where every member in it is growing in relationship to Jesus and learning to live in his view of reality. He is the Head so that he “might come to have first place in everything.” (Col 1:18) That can happen only as every believer experiences the depth of friendship that Jesus wants with each of us.
Unfortunately leadership in our day doesn’t always help people live in that reality but often offers a substitute for it – and people like it that way. Like the children of Israel, many prefer to keep God at arm’s length expecting so-called leaders to deal with God for them so that they can follow only when they think it best.
“Those who most effectively function in leadership in this body don’t need titles, salaries or positions of authority. In fact, those things will only distract from God’s calling.”
For two thousand years this view of leadership has stripped God’s people of their confidence in his ability to work in them and has made them dependent upon clergy and institutions for their spiritual life. Isn’t it amazing that every religious system creates a local, holy-man guru who becomes the resident expert on things spiritual? Neither Jesus nor Paul ever envisioned the role we have ascribed to vocational pastors, priests and ‘workers’ today who supplant Jesus’ place among his people. These gifts Jesus spread over a far wider group of people who help others put their dependence on Christ, not themselves, their programs or their books!
The early apostles never saw it as a threat to their place in the body to say things like, “You have no need for anyone to teach you.” “You have an anointing from the Holy One to know truth and error.” They wanted Jesus’ followers to learn to trust him and hear from him directly as they lived in mutual relationship with each other.
They were not discounting the importance of teaching or counsel, but only putting it in its proper place. Whatever gift we have in the body, it is only to supplement his working in people, not to become a substitute for it. At best the touch of a leader is only temporary, helping people along the way, then quickly returning to the more enduring place of brother or sister.
Leadership in the body simply happens as Jesus expresses himself by the Holy Spirit through a submitted life. Sadly the star syndrome in the church often means that we elevate and give glory to the messengers rather than to the rightful ruler.
No one can take Jesus’ place in the body. That’s why Paul told people not to listen to anyone who distorted the gospel of Jesus (Gal. 1) nor to follow anyone purporting to know God’s will for others. (Col. 2) Those who have Jesus’ heart for the body will always be wary of others growing dependent upon anyone but the Lord himself. They would never rob a brother or sister of the joy of learning how to live freely in daily submission to Christ alone.
TO SERVE NOT TO MANAGE
One popular teacher a couple of decades ago defined spiritual leadership as the ability “to motivate people to do what they wouldn’t otherwise freely chose to do.” That’s manipulation not leadership. While it may be true of drill sergeants in basic training or advertising executives designing commercials, it is the opposite of what God has in mind for his children.
Virtually everyone today gives lip service to the biblical ideal of servant leadership, but most don’t realize that as long as you try to get people to do what you think is best for them you act as their master, not their servant. You are not serving them; they are serving you.
If anyone had the right to be served you’d think it would be Jesus, who is after all the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. But even he didn’t take advantage of his position (when he certainly could have) but instead concerned himself with helping others to settle down at home in his Father’s life.
We can barely talk of leadership today without using the language of management. We see leadership as those who by power, influence or anointing compel others to act. Our religious systems take people who have a heart for God and turn them into program managers who make people conform to their program and think it is loving to do so. Those who get to the top of any institutional process hold great power over people and derive great personal benefit from it as well.
When Jesus lived in the flesh, he didn’t treat power the way others did and it drove his disciples nuts. Rather than gather power, he emptied himself of it. He knew that the way to help people into the Father’s life was not to direct them there, but to let them see his Father’s reality and help them learn to live in it. He knew compelling people would never work so he always gave them the freedom to choose. Likewise the early disciples had the grace to tell people the truth, and then let them go so they would be free to choose as their conscience directed.
Any Godly leader will do the same. He won’t create power centers of influence, money or program that can be managed or exploited, but will release the body to do as God leads them.
“Whatever elevates you above others destroys the value of anything God wants to share through you.”
FUNCTION NOT IDENTITY
Beware of anyone who finds their identity in the body based on a role of leadership or a title of ministry. As clearly as Jesus told us anything, he told his followers not to depend on such nonsense, for it is based on a false view of our Father’s family. “But do not be called Rabbi; for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers… And do not be called leaders; for One is your Leader, that is, Christ.” (Matt. 23:8, 10)
The primary relationship for each member of the body is to be connected to the Head, then to share his life with each other as brother and sister. No greater identity is needed than to be sons and daughters of God and brothers and sisters in Christ, and anything God asks us to do to help others will not alter that simple identity. The fact that our culture has built body life around ‘leaders’ and ‘non-leaders’ robs the body of the freedom to share God’s life together.
Those who seek credibility in their degrees, their prowess with the original languages of Scripture, or some kind of ‘extra’ anointing not available to other believers, demonstrates by doing so how little of God’s nature they truly understand. Whatever elevates you above others destroys the value of anything God wants to share through you.
So, what do leaders do? Scripture gives us three functions for leadership:
To Facilitate Not Control: Leading in the body is as simple as initiating, at God’s leading, actions and activities and inviting others to come along and share in that experience. Leadership doesn’t seek to control an event or make sure it happens the way they think best, but acts as a catalyst to allow others to express what God has revealed to them. That happens as simply as someone leading out in a chorus, inviting people over for fellowship, or planning an outreach activity. A gift of leadership can get the ball rolling and see if others will pick it up and run with it.
To Equip Not to Perform: Instead of taking center-stage in the body with their gifts, true leaders crawl behind the scenes to help others grow in the life of Jesus and discover how God wants to express himself through them. Since this is best accomplished by example, they will live open lives before others as they help others learn how to connect with God in a meaningful way. They never exploit people’s shame or try to hold them accountable, but free them from shame so that they can engage in a transforming relationship with God. (Anyone who does this knows it happens best in smaller groups where there is a real exchange of dialogue rather than in large-scale seminars.) As people become free in God’s life, they will know how to relate to others and that will allow the body to reflect a fuller picture of who Jesus is to the world around them.
To Watch Over Not Police: While not trying to manage the body, leaders will look beyond themselves to help the body live in wholeness. They will seek out those who exploit the body for their own gain and deal with them honestly and lovingly. They will help young believers learn to discern between true and false believers and point them back to Jesus when they are distracted.
ONE FLOCK WITH ONE SHEPHERD
When God exposed the false shepherds in Ezekiel 34, he didn’t say he would get rid of the false shepherds and find better ones. He said he would remove the false shepherds and shepherd them himself. He would lead them to safe pastures and protect them from harm so that they would never be afraid or abused again.
With that instruction, why do we have so many people today who insist on being shepherds? That’s not what I Peter 5 is about. Peter tells those called as elders to lead like Jesus did, not by compulsion, not for money, nor to lord over the flock, but simply by being an example of Christ’s life to others.
Those who try to act on his behalf in this way are put in an untenable position. Eugene Peterson described it in his translation of Psalm 14:3 as “Sheep taking turns pretending to be the shepherd.” It gives false teachers a platform to deceive and manipulate people and corners well-meaning people into roles that distort the reality of God’s family.
Why do we think that we need leaders to follow when we have the Leader himself? In John 10 Jesus said he was the only shepherd and those who follow him “shall become one flock with one shepherd.” Why is the body of Christ so weakened and divided today? Because we march to a thousand shepherds, each claiming the mantle of Christ and each leading people to what they think is best.
How do you live this reality practically? If you find yourself weighed down by someone who wants to be your shepherd, take some distance. While you may benefit from some of God’s work in them, living your spirituality through them will only rob you. Don’t think you have to dismantle their organizations, just live in the freedom God gives you.
When God does bring someone near whom he has shaped by his life, listen and watch them without becoming dependent on them. Don’t be so paranoid of falling prey to false leadership that you miss the gifts of wonderful people God has put near you.
And if you’re one of those God has freed from the desire to rule over others, it may be time for you to step up. Don’t think for a moment that God led you outside the power structures to be isolated. He did it to free you from its clutches so you could serve people in a greater way into a fuller life in him.
We will be one flock when we embrace one shepherd. Only when we all learn how to live in him and follow him will we realize the joy and the power of the unity that he desires for his church. Anyone who leads in this family, will want nothing less
BodyLife is published periodically by Lifestream Ministries and is sent free of charge to anyone who requests it. For those with email we recommend our web-based version so that we can hold down costs and get it to you much more quickly. This is especially important for international subscribers. © Copyright 2002
In the last decade I’ve met thousands of believers all over the world and watched carefully as they live seek to live out Christian fellowship in a variety of groupings – from twos and threes in spontaneous fellowship to centuries old congregations and just about everything in between. In many places I have been delighted to find God’s people sharing his reality together as they grow to know him. In others, I’ve watched in sadness as they struggle to replicate some form of New Testament body life, but despite their diligent efforts they continually end up disappointed and frustrated.
Because I want everyone to know the joy of living in Christ’s life, I’m always trying to sort out what makes the difference. Why do some groups enjoy the Lord’s fullness together and others miss out? Some would say the presence of Jesus makes all the difference, and while that would be at least partly true, I find him present everywhere, even among the most captive people, inviting them closer to him.
Others might say that it’s because some meet the way God has told them to and others follow the traditions of men. That would be partly true as well, but I’ve noticed on occasion that the people employing the most biblical principles of church life have the most dysfunctional relationships and people as naive as spiritual toddlers are having a great time basking in the joy of God’s work.
No, in the end it isn’t knowledge, maturity, the right principles or even effort and commitment. People who live out God’s life in the healthiest settings have learned the beauty of shared dependence. And by that I don’t mean they have learned to depend on a leader, each other or a specific church structure, but that they are learning together how to depend on the Father and thus participate in his work among them.
DO WE NEED FELLOWSHIP?
Through most of my life I have heard people talk about church life with the language of need. “A good Christian is supposed to attend services whenever the body meets.” “You need to ‘come to church’ or you will fall into error.” What is so bad about body life that the only way we’re motivated to participate is because we have to? All this talk of obligation and commitment makes me wonder if the driving force behind ‘church attendance’ today isn’t nothing more than misery loves company. Let’s face it, sitting through the same service every week can get a bit boring. Even the most incredible speakers I’ve heard grow tiresome week after week and repetitious year after year.
What is so bad about body life that the only way we’re motivated to participate is because we have to?
Body life was meant to reflect the joy of Father’s family, not be a painful obligation for his children. I know that may be hard to believe for those who have only experienced church life as redundant meetings, controlling leaders or relationships filled with gossip, condemnation and manipulation. Real body life, however, doesn’t look like any of those things.
When the New Testament talks about body life it doesn’t use the language of need or obligation. It doesn’t compel believers to engage God’s family because we have to, but invites them to share in an unparalleled demonstration of God’s glory. Your own individual relationship with him will at best allow you to taste only a tiny facet of God’s person and wisdom. Paul compared it to a partial glimpse as though we are looking at a darkened mirror (I Cor. 13:12). At best we will only see a part. But when we combine our part with the many other parts that are expressed by other members of his family, we get a more complete picture of God and his working. That’s why Paul described the church as the fullness of Christ (Eph. 1:23).
When you are loved beyond your wildest dreams, challenged to greater heights of glory, encouraged by his strength in others and enlightened by their insights, no one will have to be forced to participate. But only God can produce that kind of life together. If we look for it in each other instead of in him we’ll only find ourselves living a cheap substitute for the reality God offers us.
IT’S HIM WE NEED
In reality we don’t need each other. We need him! Body life that doesn’t begin with that simple premise is destined to miss the mark. As valuable and enriching as authentic body life is, if we make it a substitute for God’s daily presence working in each of us it will become an obstacle in the journey instead of a blessing to it.
We can’t let the two get confused. Scripture is clear here. He alone is our strength and shield. He alone is our refuge. He wants to teach each one of us how to live totally dependent upon him. Our relationships with each other must encourage that process not supplant it.
Recently I saw a photo of a newly discovered cave whose existence was only recently announced in the media. One chamber in this cave is large enough to contain the Superdome with plenty of room to spare. The only way out is to climb a rope which has been lowered through a hole in its ceiling. In the photo the team was climbing the rope to get back to the surface.
That photo held in tension the camaraderie of the journey without misplacing their dependence. Each of them was dependent on that rope to get out of that chamber. As valuable as their encouragement, experience and instruction might have been to the others, each person still needed to trust that rope enough to climb to the surface. None of them, even with the best intentions, could substitute for that rope. No one could crawl out for someone else and they could climb all over each other for years and still never find their way out to the surface.
Body life naturally results from people learning to live in daily dependence on the presence of the Father. That passion is an essential ingredient to people discovering effective body life together.
In the same way our relationships with each other can only grow in health when we’re not trying to get from each other what only God can provide. Like the rope for the climbers, God wants us to depend on him alone and encourage others in the process of learning to do that.
TAKE NO SUBSTITUTE
Body life naturally results from people learning to live in daily dependence on the presence of the Father. That passion is an essential ingredient to people discovering effective body life together. It is tempting to think that if Jesus makes himself known in the body that we depend on him by depending on each other. Admittedly it is a subtle shift, but a potentially fatal one, at least spiritually, if it gets our eyes off of Jesus and on other people or on any system for replicating church.
Once the rope climbers let go of the rope, even to grab for each other, disaster results. We are people on a journey to greater relationship with him and greater trust in him. We can help each other go further together than most will go alone but we must never forget where we’re going. Body life flourishes where people are learning to depend on God for everything, and their relationships support that growth.
Unfortunately most of what passes for body life today, however unwittingly, offers substitutes for that dependence from taking hold in our hearts. Tradition can easily become the attempt to replicate something God did in the past, and most programs seek to secure God’s hand in the future. Both keep us from responding to the God who works in the present, leading us to trust him more. Read Matthew 6 and learn what Jesus is saying about each of us living in the absolute security of the fact that God will take care of us and lead us into his life. This is something we each must sort out in our own relationship with him.
I know learning trust him alone can be scary. It may seem easier in the short term to put our dependence in leaders, other believers or a way of doing church, but it will only lead to perpetual frustration and hurt when others quite innocently fail our expectations or even more belligerently betray our trust. The pain that results is evidence enough of our misplaced dependency.
While we can encourage each other in the process we must take care not to subvert it by trying to rely on each other instead of on him. When people lose the passion to cultivate a growing dependence on the Father, the best they can produce by human effort is an illusion of body life.
VERESTIMATING OUR ABILITIES
It was one of those answers that surprised me as soon as I heard myself say it and that doesn’t happen too often for someone who generally thinks three sentences ahead of the one that is currently coming out of his mouth. For the past hour and a half I had been sitting in a former Tulsa nightclub with a group of hungry believers talking about this incredible journey of knowing the Father and walking in the reality of his presence. Then someone asked, “What do you think is the biggest barrier to people living in the fullness of God’s life?”
“I’m beginning to think the greatest barrier is the overestimation of our own capabilities.” My answer surprised me. I don’t know that I’ve ever expressed that concern in answer to a similar question. I had to pause and think for a moment whether or not that was my final answer.
The more I thought about it, however, I saw that God was illuminating something he had been working on in my life. I used to think diligent effort applied to the right process could accomplish anything. But over the years the failure of my best efforts had finally convinced me that “unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labor in vain” (Ps. 127:1). The joy of this life is found in trusting him and following his leading out of a daily relationship of growing trust.
The longer we talked that night about the pressure we put on ourselves and others to replicate this amazing thing we call the life of the Spirit, the more convinced I became that overestimating our own capabilities complicates our walk instead of freeing us. It leads to feeling trapped in our failures and taking pride in successes. It makes us manipulate others to do what we think is best and encourages everyone to get their eyes on people rather than on Jesus. It leads to misplaced effort and wasted energy, because we will only know how to do our work when we understand how God works. People who trust their own capabilities will never discover the reality of life in God and the joy of sharing that life with others.
NOT EVEN A LITTLE BIT
People who trust their own capabilities will never discover the reality of life in God and the joy of sharing that life with others.
The life of God had turned Paul’s whole world upside-down – from a committed religionist who boasted in his abilities and prided himself in his accomplishments to one who put absolutely no confidence in the flesh. (See Phil. 3:1-11). How would you like to have been in fellowship with Paul before God got a hold of his life? It would have been insufferable. He thought himself always right, closer to God than anyone else and he had the right to kill you if you didn’t see it his way. Of course today we use accusation and gossip far more often than actual stones, but it aims at the same result.
Imagine how different it was after Jesus had captured Paul with his penetrating love. He drew Paul to himself and changed him from one who was confident in his own abilities, into one who knew that only Jesus could accomplish anything that would endure. He’s the one that draws people to the truth. He’s the one that changes lives. He’s the one that connects his body in ways that further the purpose of his kingdom.
Paul could then see that his own best efforts were nothing but sewage, worthless in the unfolding of God’s glory in himself or in others. He found the righteousness that human effort produces to be repulsive and simply delighted himself in the righteousness that his growing trust in God produced.
Since he had no confidence in his own flesh, he didn’t put pressure on others to perform with theirs. He knew that everything in this kingdom had to flow from God’s working, and we can only respond to him, not produce his life on our own. This includes body life. If we are going to learn to share his life in meaningful relationships with other believers our dependency has to be in him. We cannot accomplish it even by following what we deem to be biblical patterns of church life. While they can help us recognize the way God works they will not of themselves let us share in the glory of his life. Only the Head of the church can build his church. We can only construct illusions of it.
SHARING DEPENDENCE ON HIM
I spent some time recently with a group of people aspiring to facilitate a home group in each of their homes. I put a scenario in front of them. What if six months from now two of the groups are exploding at the seams with excited people, two of them are just coasting along and the other two are totally dead and boring. What would we know about the facilitators of those groups and what would we do about it?
Popular wisdom would tell us that those groups that look vital are led by good leaders and those that are struggling are led by weaker ones. But that’s not how God sees it. Some groups may look vital only because their leaders are better at fabricating an illusion of body life. Their lively personalities or giftings draw a following, but whether or not it reflects the true sharing of life by believers is another matter. Likewise, those groups that may be struggling may have excellent facilitators, but they are trying to accomplish something God is not doing.
Jesus said that he only did the things he saw his Father doing. Unfortunately the way many do church life today, we look for what the Father doesn’t seem to be doing and go there to try and make something happen. The results shouldn’t surprise us. Human effort cannot produce God’s fruit, but surrendered hearts can participate in all God has prepared for them.
By saying we shouldn’t place our dependence in each other, I am not excusing us from being trustworthy, dependable brothers or sisters. The deepest experiences of body life happen where people are free enough from their own agenda and brokenness to be faithful in times of trouble, genuine to the core and true to their word even if it costs them. But if you allow yourself to grow dependent on them you’ll short-change your own relationship with Jesus. In fact people who know Jesus best wouldn’t dream of letting you do that. They’ll encourage you to keep your dependency firmly on him, because he is the only way to life!
Here’s the truth: Genuine, authentic body life is a gift God gives not something we can orchestrate by human effort even by following Biblical principles. Instead of trying to create it, we would be better served to ask him to show us each day how he is placing us among his body, who is he relating us to and how can we encourage them to rely on Him more freely?
Your work is to simply follow him there. When you do he will place you among the body just as he desires and you will know the joy of sharing a growing dependency on him with other members of his body.
Hear a recent teaching Wayne did on this subject entitled Finding Authentic Body Life.
© Copyright 2003 Lifestream Ministries Permission is hereby granted to anyone wishing to make copies for free distribution
LIVING IN A RELATIONAL CHURCH, Parts 1-8 [Wayne Jacobsen] 1